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What was missing from the Ben Affleck and Bill Maher Islam debate

Ben Affleck, Bill Maher, and Sam Harris debated Islam over the weekend. But their debate was lacking something incredibly important: The voices and perspectives of Muslims and ex-Muslims.

Bill Maher. Photo courtesy Angela George via Wikimedia Commons.

Over the weekend, a televised argument about Islam involving actor Ben Affleck, comedian Bill Maher, and author Sam Harris went viral. But the argument was lacking something incredibly important: The voices and perspectives of Muslims and former Muslims.

The contentious debate about Islam occurred on the Friday, October 3 episode of Real Time with Bill Maher. Harris and Maher kicked off the discussion, and soon Affleck, former Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele, and New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof joined in.

“Liberals have really failed on the topic of theocracy,” Harris argued early in the discussion. “We have been sold this meme of Islamophobia, where criticism of the religion gets conflated with bigotry towards Muslims as people. It’s intellectually ridiculous.”

As the conversation progressed, Affleck expressed frustration.

“How about more than a billion people who aren’t fanatical, who don’t punch women, who just want to go to school, have some sandwiches, pray five times a day, and don’t do any of the things you’re saying of all Muslims,” Affleck said. “It’s stereotyping… You’re painting the whole religion with [a broad] brush.”

The discussion immediately ignited a social media firestorm. In the few days since the episode aired, many people have weighed in on who was right, who was wrong, and why. But the biggest thing that struck me about the Real Time discussion was that it didn’t include any Muslims or former Muslims.

At one point in the discussion, this problem was partially acknowledged.

“You’re saying the strongest voices are coming from [extremists],” Steele said to Harris. “Even if that is true—statistically or otherwise—the key thing to recognize that I don’t think is part of the argument, but I think should be, is that there are voices that are… raised in opposition. But guess what: they don’t get covered. They don’t get exposed. And they’re not given the same level of platform.”

And yet, without the voices of ex-Muslims or pluralistic Muslims on the Real Time panel, the discussion was itself an example of the problem. As Steele noted, their perspectives aren’t given the same platform. Yet Steele, Affleck, Maher, Harris, and Kristof were having this discussion on a large platform—one with the ability to influence the public understanding of these issues, as evidenced by how the on-air debate has since gone viral—without a single Muslim or ex-Muslim present.

This is of course a broader problem, not just with Maher’s show. In a culture that privileges the louder and more prominent voices, minority perspectives and pluralists in all communities tend to get drowned out or overlooked. But when the most visible examples of these discussions are had about Muslims and ex-Muslims, rather than had with—or, better yet, led by—Muslims and ex-Muslims, then the problem continues.

All too often, these high profile debates are had in the abstract; commenters cite statistics, discuss studies, and talk about doctrine and scripture. But it is rare to see people engage with the lived experiences and voices of pluralistic Muslims—and rarer still that the experiences and voices of former Muslims are engaged. And while statistics, studies, and scripture are important aspects of these discussions, it’s easy to forget that these discussions impact real people—unless those people are involved in the conversation.

This doesn’t mean that non-Muslims can’t talk about Islam; but it does mean that those of us who are not and have never been Muslim should make an effort to listen to and learn from the experiences and perspectives of the people who are more directly connected to the realities of these discussions.

At one point in the Real Time discussion, Harris described non-fundamentalist Muslims as people “who don’t take the faith seriously.” I know Muslims and ex-Muslims who would disagree with this assessment. And I know others who would agree. Either way, it would have been nice to hear the voices of current and former Muslims in the conversation. So the next time Maher wants to argue about Islam, I hope he will share his platform with Muslims and ex-Muslims.

Finally, since I’m neither a Muslim nor an ex-Muslim and thus am a part of this problem, I want to end by linking to a few people who could have contributed to the Real Time discussion. The people below have different views, different experiences, and are just the tip of the iceberg; there are many other Muslims and ex-Muslims I’d recommend reading and learning from.

Do you have other suggestions for Muslim and ex-Muslim voices and resources? Please leave them in the comments!